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B&N Week 1: Story Talk

| December 31, 2010 | 13 Comments

I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Did I just date myself? More importantly, did I just date you? It doesn’t matter. Today’s Tuesday, and it’s time for our first real installment of Bolts & Nuts.

I’m going to start at the very bottom of things, and talk about story. It’ll be a few weeks before we get to actual scriptwriting, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. We start at the bottom, because it’s the foundation, and without the foundation, you don’t have anything to build on. Simple, right?

So, what story do you want to tell? It’s really not as simple as it sounds. There are lots of things to consider when you decide you want to tell a story, the biggest of them being do you have enough story to actually carry the story? Sounds stupid, but it’s something that most beginning writers don’t take into account. They’re too caught up in the Great Idea to actually get down to the Bolts & Nuts of actual storytelling. [It was easy and it was there. C’mon!] Great ideas are all over the place, and it’s easy to get distracted by them. The hard part is wrangling that great idea into a story.

Generally speaking, stories need three things: a beginning, middle, and an end. Our job as writers is to provide those three things in a satisfying way. The order of them doesn’t really matter. It can be as disjointed and out of sequence as you want, but three things need to happen: you need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end to your story.

You need to have these three things before you even begin to show your work to anyone in a professional capacity.

I used to have a big problem with my endings, and would just start writing before I had one, generally trusting myself to find an end before I ran out of pages to tell my story. While it makes for a great exercise, it’s not something I recommend when trying to find work. I’ll come to what I do when I get a Great Idea in a little while, and the reason why I adopted this method. You may have your own method, and that’s fine, too. Anything to get the story down. First, let’s examine the aspects of storytelling. More accurately, the aspects of storytelling within the confines of comic book scripts.

There are many examples of comic book scripts all over the ‘net, and they vary in format from writer to writer, company to company. However, when it’s broken down, you’re going to find the same elements again and again. We’ll come to those elements in a moment. Before that, I want to talk about film scriptwriting.

Screenplays and comic book scripts both share a lot of elements. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of comic writers that use screenwriting programs such as Final Draft when they write. However, there are vast differences between screenplays and comic scripts.

For screenplays, you’re generally writing a moving action. “Jane runs across the street to meet Victor. They kiss, right there in the middle of the torrential downpour, heedless of the rain, and the crush of people under ineffectual umbrellas walk around them.” That’s moving action, and has no place at all in a comic script. [Plot-first scripts, maybe, but we’ll come to that at a later time.]

Generally, as a comic scriptwriter, you have to understand that you’re dealing with static panels. (Yeah, yeah, Steven, I know that.) Well, no, you don’t. Honestly. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen something like the above written into a comic script. It’s not hard to think in static panels, but it’s a learned trait to write in static panels. You want to stuff so much into action into a panel that you forget what you’re doing and lapse into film writing instead of comic writing.

And that’s the real trick of comic book writing: being able to tell an effective story using static panels and dialogue. Even if you see the action like a film in your head, as the writer, your job is to find the most crucial frame in that film, freeze it, and describe it in something like the format I’m about to describe. And you have to do it over and over and over [and over] again. Sounds like fun, right? Then let’s talk about the format you’ll use for a little bit.

Like I said before, formatting is not consistent from writer to writer or company to company, but it’s generally going to go something like this:

Page 1

Panel 1: Panel description here [remember to think in static panels!].

Character 1: Character 1 says something. This can be in all caps or not. Depends on what you’re comfortable with.

Character 2: Character 2 responds to Character 1.

SFX: sound effect

And that’s really all there is to it. Simple, right? I’ll tell you that learning format is the easiest thing to learn when it comes to writing comics. It’s a breeze. The hard part is learning what to put in, when to put it in, what to leave out, and why you’re doing any of the above. The real question is if it’s so easy, why are so many of you doing it wrong?

(Steven, you said that formatting changes from writer to writer and company to company. That means there is no “wrong” way, correct?)

Incorrect. And I’ll give you some examples.

I’ve seen a “script” where the panel description started where Page 1 is. I’ve seen scripts where there are panel descriptions are in character dialog. I’ve seen sound effects placed in panel descriptions. I’ve seen it all, and I’m here to tell you that if you do any of that, then you’re wrong. It gets no easier than that. However, if you use an approximation of the example given, you’ve got a decent start, and it becomes a matter of what do to within the confines of the format.

There’s one other aspect of comics that you should grasp before we continue. The “accepted” length of today’s comics are thirty-two pages: ten pages of ads, and twenty-two pages of story. These are the comics you’ll find from the larger companies: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image. Some may have more, most will not have less. [Remember, we’re speaking in generalities. No hate-mail telling me that Pen-Man was one billion pages of story with no ads, please and thank you.]

Now, most writers won’t talk about ads. We’ll talk about story space, and in that case we’ll generally say twenty-two pages. Everyone on the same page? Good.

Okay, I’ve said all that to make sure you understand that your story needs to be able to be told within the confines of your page count, and if you want to pitch to certain companies, that page count is twenty-two. I’m only talking single issues, not a limited series or graphic novel. If you don’t have enough story to carry twenty-two pages, then don’t start writing until you do.

Earlier, I spoke about having a beginning, middle, and end to your story. I suggest that before you start writing, when you have your Great Idea, see if you know it backwards. If you know where you’re going to end up, then you’ll have a general idea as to where to start, and the middle is what you use to get to your ending. That’s what I do when I write–I make sure that I know where I want to end up, and then point my story in that direction.

So, you’ve got your Great Idea and you know it backwards, but it won’t fit into a single issue. Steven, what do I do?!

The first thing to do is not panic. You’re panicking, and you shouldn’t do that. Panicking never helped anyone. I never said you had to tell the entire story in twenty-two pages; I said to make sure you had enough story to carry your page count.

Let’s say you have enough story for a limited series, and we’ll call it four issues. You know exactly where you want to end up, and you won’t do a LotR: Return of the King ending. How do you break it up?

The basic formula is this: the first issue is the set-up, the second and third issue is where the action is, and the last issue is the payoff. Sure, there are technical terms, but I want everyone to understand me. Just be happy I’m not using the “pickup someone in a bar” analogy. And yes, I thought about it.

Okay, so you have to make sure you “end” your story four times. Think of it like chapters in a book. Every chapter ends, but builds up the tension of the story as a whole, so that when you reach the end, it’s hopefully something that is satisfying. So you break your Great Idea down into issues, and have a vague idea as to what happens during each issue so that you get to your “end,” which in turn will get you to your real end.

This is both easier and harder than it sounds, and we’ll talk about it next week. So, yes, the thrust of next week’s article is Plotting. And I promise to have all different bad jokes.

I’d like to end most of these with homework. Exercises for you to do. Things that will help you to hone your skills. For your exercise, I want you to do a few things. First, go to your comic stash and do a page count. A total page count, and then just story pages. This will help to reinforce just what it is that you’re doing. Then I want you to read the comic. As long as it’s not a one-shot, you’re looking for a beginning, middle, and end in that comic. If it’s part of an overarching story, like an ongoing series or somesuch, see if you can identify the parts. Do this for a few comics, using different writers. See if you can tell the difference between some writers and others.

Then I want you to come back and tell me about it. See? I just made this interactive! And it’s on a Tuesday! Tomorrow is new comic day, so you get to try it out on your new purchases! Didn’t know you were gonna have homework, didja?

And there’s the bell. Don’t run over each other to get out of here, and stay safe out there. Watch for random paper cuts!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (13)

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  1. John Lees says:

    It makes me very happy to see that Bolts & Nuts has returned! I learned so much from this column in its first incarnation, and I hope to learn more in its relaunch here.

    As far as the homework goes, one writer who I feel has mastered the craft of serialised storytelling is Robert Kirkman. Anyone wanting to take notes on how to structure an ongoing comic series would do well to take notes from his approach to “The Walking Dead”. Let’s take a look at the various levels of “beginning, middle, end” that he works in.

    First, each single issue manages to be a satisfying package in its own right. Each issue has a 22 page story that continues the monthly narrative, but at the same time is a self-contained episode in its own right. For example, the most recent issue, #79. While it serves as a prelude to the next multi-issue arc, “No Way Out”, and follows on from the developments of the previous issue, it is a satisfying read in of itself, built as it is around a narrative framing device of juxtaposing a conversation between two characters with an action scene where another group of characters are fighting to kill off a gathering of zombies. And we see how, as the issue goes on, the two seemingly disparate threads come together, with the conversation in one reflecting the action in the other, until we have a closing moment that casts both threads in a whole new light. And, with every issue, Kirkman ends with a bang – a cliffhanger or a shock reveal – to entice readers to pick up the next issue. Also included is a lengthy letters section at the back, to ensure that those who buy the comic monthly rather than trade-waiting are rewarded with exclusive content not found in any other edition of “The Walking Dead”.

    Next up are the paperback graphic novels. These each cover 6 issues, and when you read them it becomes apparent that, as well as crafting a shock ending at the end of each single issue, Kirkman ensures that he places a particularly major cliffhanger at the end of every sixth issue. He’s writing in a way to keep in mind not only the single issue readers, but those who follow the series in graphic novel format. On a similar vein, while the single issues advance the larger story while being an enjoyable self-contained read in their own right, the same can be said for the paperback graphic novels, with each 6-issue chunk coming together to form a larger story with its own beginning, middle and end. Kirkman enhances the sense of this being a seamless individual story by not dividing up issues within the graphic novel, instead providing each graphic novel as a single 132 page story. Take, for example, Volume 11: “Fear the Hunters”. Yes, it works as an installment of the larger longform “Walking Dead” saga, but in its own right, it works as a “Tales from the Crypt” style sting-in-the-tail story about a group of nasty cannibals who get a lot more than they bargained for when messing with our survivors.

    Kirkman pulls this off on a larger scale with the hardback graphic novels, which cover 12 issues. And his sense of structure becomes even more impressive, when we realise that while he saves the big cliffhangers for every 6th issue, the ones that come on every 12th issue are typically the more climactic and resounding. And while read as paperback graphic novels, “Volume 9: Here We Remain” can be read as a self-contained story about Rick and Carl’s struggle to cope with the death of Lori, and Volume 10: What We Become” can be read as a self-contained story about how our survivors are gradually turning into monsters in this harsh world, when put together in the hardcover “The Walking Dead, Volume 5”, they become a larger self-contained narrative with its own beginning, middle and end about the toll survival has taken on Rick, Carl and the rest of the remaining ensemble, all while simultaneously building on what came before and setting the stage for what comes after.

    Look now at the oversized hardback Omnibus editions that cover 24 issues. And then look at how the big, defining moments of the series that have marked a dramatic change in the status quo of the book (“We are the walking dead!”, the tragic climax of the prison arc) have fallen on every 24th issue. The first 24 issues tell a complete, epic narrative with a beginning, middle and end about the survivors’ struggles to find a home and a sense of normalcy in this harsh new world, the next 24 issues cover the entirety of the Woodbury saga.

    As powerful a moment as issue #24’s ending was, the biggest, most climactic moment of the entire series so far was the ending of issue #48. That felt like the end of an era, as if every one of the 47 issues that came before had been leading up it. And as such, the mammoth Walking Dead Compendium, covering 48 issues, feels like a massive, sweeping epic tale with a definite beginning, middle and end.

    Here we see that Kirkman has structured “The Walking Dead” with total precision, in a way that the series can be read in 5 different formats – in 1 issue, 6 issue, 12 issue, 24 issue or 48 issue chunks – and no matter how you read it, you’re getting a complete, rewarding reading ecperience with a beginning, middle and end.

  2. Thanks for coming by, John! And it looks like you took the Story Talk to heart!

    Kirkman is a great storyteller. What other writers are really good at telling a story in 22 pages? Let’s take away the usual suspects, though: Gaiman, Ellis, Moore, Morrison, and Bendis. They’re like five fingers on a hand. But, let’s see who else you can come up with, and break them down. 😉

  3. John Lees says:

    Another writer whose storytelling ability has really impressed me this year is Scott Snyder, a relative newcomer whose first major comics work was Vertigo’s “American Vampire”, the success of which has landed Snyder the high-profile gig of writing for “Detective Comics”.

    “American Vampire” is really impressive in its efficiency. No issue feels like it is treading water. It feels like every issue provides a new piece of information about a character or about the mythology of Snyder’s world. To add more to Steve’s “beginning, middle and end” point, with “American Vampire” Snyder often uses his beginning to connect the current issue to what has come before and reward returning readers, the middle to work in content that makes each issue a worthwhile reading experience in its own right, and the end to leave a hook to bring readers back for the next issue. For example, let’s look at the latest issue, #11, and how its 22 story pages are broken down:

    BEGINNING
    Hattie – a character from an earlier arc,thought dead -is revealed as still alive, but also given a piece of introductory narration to establish who she is and the role she will play for anyone picking up the series for the first time. (4 pages)

    MIDDLE
    The main body of the story, with two narrative threads. One concerns Hattie’s escape from captivity. The other concerns vampire/human couple Pearl and Henry, as we see them living their lives together in contented isolation, with dual narration showing the (often parallel) secret concerns and worries they are each harboring. Again, we are given (re)introductions to who these people are for those who do not know. What I think is important – and Snyder has done this in every issue – is that this main body of story would make a satisfying reading experience for someone only buying this issue of the series and none other. Of course, it’s made richer by knowing the wider mythology, but we’re given enough information to not NEED to be buying every issue. A lot of writers write in a way that caters to trade-waiters, so its nice to see someone who writes in a way that respects the serialised experience and the value of a single comic. (10 pages)

    END
    We learn that Hattie is going to hunt down Pearl in hopes of violent revenge. Henry is placed in a position of mortal danger. Both threads are left unresolved, encouraging readers old and new to come back next month. (6 pages)

    So here we have a balancing act of rewarding and encouraging the returning reader by always bringing something new to the table, advancing the mythology and recalling what has come before, while simultaneously welcoming new readers with a story that is accessible.

    Also notable is how Snyder used the considerable asset of a back-up story by Stephen King in the first 5 issues of the series. He could simply have had his story, then Stephen King’s back-up as a special attraction, but instead he ensured that – though his main story told a 5-part narrative and King’s backup told a seperate 5-part narrative – EACH ISSUE the Snyder story complimented and the developments of the King story, so that King’s story didn’t just feel like a special attraction to sell books, but rather an organic ingredient all but inseperable from Snyder’s central narrative.

    The twin adherence to history and accessibility has also come into play in Snyder’s run on “Detective Comics”. In the first issue, he spends the first 5 pages doing something that many writers have overlooked or taken for granted was unnecessary: he introduces Dick Grayson, and tells us who he is, including what makes him distinct as Batman. But at the same time, the story is littered with nods and references to continuity – from references to the earthquake of “No Man’s Land”, to Gordon being surprised when he turns around and Batman is still standing there for once, to the return of a forgotten character from “Batman: Year One” – meaning that those well versed in Batman lore will find the story rewarding on a deeper level.

    Also good is how, again, the main Batman story and the Gordon back-up feature interact, the events in one referenced in the other, so that the back-up doesn’t just feel supplementary and tacked on, but rather a worthwhile addition to the single issue package.

  4. This is good. I will keep my eye on this. I need to rededucate myself in comic book writing.

  5. MikeK says:

    Hey Steve. Great Article!
    I look forward to reading more, and will make sure to participate in the homework.

  6. Johnny Vinson says:

    Hi Steven,

    John turned me onto your site, and I have to say I learned much just from your first article. I’m working on my first comic book story, and John provided some helpful criticism, which led me here. I’ve always been a “dive in before learning” sort of guy, so my script fell into some of the pitfalls mentioned in your post. I’m fully prepared to learn however.

    For the first set of homework I’m going to be breaking down The Unwritten #1 by Mike Carey, and art by Peter Gross, Black Widow #1 by Marjorie Liu and art by Daniel Acuna.

    For The Unwritten #1, it was interesting reading this issue from an analytical point of view. It pointed out some of the short-comings of Mike Carey, but making me love those short-comings at the same time. Carey seems to write like I described myself above, “dive without thinking”. His story starts readers in a very confusing state, but brings it all together to introduce the main character of the book in a very interesting way. The middle act is a direct result of an interesting plot twist in the beginning of the book, and carries the plot progression in an interesting fashion. The end of the book again highlights of Carey’s style. It’s a definite cliff hanger, and provides more questions than answers. Though this is more indicative of it being an overall #1 issue.

    Black Widow #1 was a wonderful contrast to The Unwritten #1, as Liu is much more precise in her separation of beginning, middle, and end. It’s interesting to compare this book which is based on a character with a large and rich history, to something like The Unwritten which is completely new. I think it shows how the three elements of storytelling still matter no matter whether or not you’re writing something completely from your imagination or utilizing a character which came before you.

    • Thanks, Johnny!

      I’m glad you found us, and I’m glad you’re participating! It looks like you’re on the right path. Keep participating and doing the “homework,” and you should see a marked difference in the way you script then as compared to now.

      Also, don’t forget to look in on The Proving Grounds. There’s a lot of information to be had there, too.

  7. I’m a little late to the party here but I plan to catch up.

    I am new to the comic script format, having only worked with screenplays before but I am excited to learn this medium.

    I have chosen to look at one of Nick Spencer’s first comics for this homework.

    NICK SPENCER’S EXISTENCE 2.0 ISSUE #1

    “Self-absorbed physicist Sylvester Baladine finds his consciousness transferred into the body of the hit man who just killed him…”

    Page 1-5 OPENING

    As you can see from the log line this is quite a high concept story and Spencer does a great job of boiling this down to it’s essence in the opening scene (this first page even!).

    By page 5 we have a clear idea of the set-up and what type of story to expect.

    He introduces the main character well and dangles enough threads to make you want to dive into the next section, especially the random curve ball he throws in with this all being a cats fault in the final panel at the bottom of page 5!!

    PAGE 6-12 BACK STORY

    I’m not sure if I would class this as the end of the beginning or the beginning of the middle, but at this point Spencer decides to spend 6 pages giving us a pretty comprehensive back story which adds weight to the protagonist and supporting cast, as well as making the events that lead up to the opening clear.

    However, as well as presenting the answers to questions we had, he also makes sure to raise a few new ones making us want to keep reading and find out more.

    PAGE 13-18 MIDDLE

    This is the section that in a screenplay would be referred to as the “Fun & Games”. It’s where you get to see the series high concept played out.

    Here we get to see our protagonist Sylvester, in his new, younger, stronger body as he enjoys living the hit mans lifestyle and all the perks that come with it.

    He sees this as a gift and has accepted his new life until he finds out his daughter from his old one was also kidnapped when he was murdered.

    This is the inciting incident that breaks us into the end section…

    PAGE 19-23 ENDING

    Here Sylvester, using all the advantages of his new found body and the muscle memory and reflexes of a highly trained hit man, begins his quest to track down his daughter, giving the series it’s new direction and a sense of purpose.

    We also end on a kick ass action scene!!

    Summary:

    Looking at this issue on its own, it has a clear beginning, middle and end with enough weight to make it an enjoyable read on its own.

    However when read as part of a 3 issue mini-series, it’s clear that this is the first act, ending on an inciting incident with enough force to break us into the second.

  8. I’m so very new to the comic world, but when it comes to understanding the structure of a story, whether it’s animated or sequential, to me they carry some similarities and I want to understand all that it entails to have a story told, so here goes.

    I’ve chosen to look at Phil Hester’s Mini-Series Firebreather Issue #4 which consists of 23 story pages

    The series takes the reader into the life of a not so normal teen name Duncan Rosenblatt, a human/dragon hybrid (still unsure to how that worked but I’m going with it) trying to find his place in the world as he’s caught up in two: Trying to live a normal life in the human world with his Mother or accepting his heritage, being next in line as the king of monsters like his Father.

    Beginning:
    Duncan comes home to find his house in shambles and his mother missing. Knowing that the one who took her was a creature his father unleashed in the previous issue to test his skills and see if he has the killer instinct, he heads out in search of his Mother learning another ability he inherited from his Father’s genes…the ability to fly. (6 Pages)

    Middle:
    Here Ducan encounters the creature and goes head to head against this beast in a pretty nice battle sequence.

    Victorious, Duncan must choose to listen to his father’s advice and kill the creature like he was supposed to or listen to his mother’s plea by showing mercy. Duncan chooses to spare the creature’s life once again only see his father arrive finishing what Duncan was supposed to do. The small family reunion is cut short and everyone goes their separate ways. (13 Pages)

    End:
    Ducan returns to his Father’s lair knowing that he sent the creature to go after him even though he spared its life. The father warns Duncan for his reasons reminding him of his duty as the future king, to keep their legacy as ruler over the monster world. Duncan warns him to never put his Mother in danger again or he will kill him and flies off. We come to the conclusion as Duncan returns to the hotel they’re staying at till their house is fixed. He finds a note from his Mother telling him he as make-up homework to do and how proud she is of him for who he is. (4 pages)

    The issue by itself doesn’t have a clear beginning as first time reader would be clueless to what’s going on and may go back and read the previous issues to catch up or drop it all together. But when put together as the final issue to a four part mini-series, the story is captivating, wanting to find out more about the main character and how he handles life with his separated parents.

  9. blahblah1984 says:

    Hello Steven,

    I just wanted to let you know, the work you did here is super important, and I am going to start from the beginning and work my way up to current.

    I wish happy karma upon you, and hope you land the editor job where the pen is made of gold.

    Cheers,

    Chad

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